Flowers, flowers everywhere…

Every year the semi-arid and usually quite drab West Coast of South Africa becomes a carpet of flowers. This generally occurs in late Winter or early Spring (i.e. from mid August to early September) following the rainy season. Along the West Coast winters are generally mild and fairly wet in the south west, but conditions get drier as one moves further north toward Namibia. The flowers are especially prolific during years with higher rainfall. Because the West Coast has received very good rainfall this year, my wife and I decided to take a trip to see the show for ourselves. We drove to the West Coast National Park (about 2 hours drive from Cape Town) and were certainly not disappointed: the flowers are magnificent this year. There were several areas with standing water, indicating how good the rains have been (such as this pool, below) and carpets of red, orange, white pink and yellow flowers.

Annual plants, such as these daisies (above), are especially spectacular and are the stars of the show. I think most of the species are in the genus Arctotis, although daisies like these are notoriously difficult to tell apart (if anyone has a better identification please let me know in the comments). These plants tend to be herbaceous annuals that grow quickly, produce flimsy leaves and shallow roots with large flowers and survive most of the year (when the soils are dry) as seeds.

However, quite a few perennials (such as mesembs and Euphorbia below) also produce flowers during this time. Many of these plants tend to be succulents, surviving through the drier times of the year by relying on internal stored water.

Mesembs and Euphorbs are also notoriously difficult to tell apart, so I am not certain of these species either. However, I think most of the mesembs (also locally known as “vygies” because of the fig-like fruits that these species produce) are of the genus Lampranthus. I also think that the species below might be Euphorbia burmannii, because it is intricately branched and lacks the false flowers that I associate with Euphorbia mauritanica, a similar-looking species that is also widespread along the West Coast.

Not all succulent species flower with the rainy season. These species rely on stored water to produce flowers later in the season. One benefit to delaying flowering is that pollinators might be less distracted by the showy annuals!

Here is the wonderfully-named Euphorbia caput-medusae, which was locally common in the Rocherpan Nature Reserve (which I highly recommend to anyone planning a trip along this coast).

There were even a few parasitic plants, like this Cytinus sanguineus (below), which is a root parasite that has no leaves. The species has been placed in Rafflesiaceae, the same family as Rafflesia arnoldii – the species with the largest flower – but I think that the classification is uncertain at present (if anyone knows differently please let us know in the comments). I am not entirely certain why this species would be flowering now if avoiding competition for pollinators is highly important.

I must admit that even though flowers are not everything that there is to a plant, the allure of the annuals’ display is very hard to resist.

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